epistemology

Book Review: The Paradox of Sensemaking

by TOM HOY, Stripe Partners Sensemaking: The Power of Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm Christian Madsbjerg 2017, 240 pp, Hachette Books Excerpt Christian Madsbjerg has done a huge amount to elevate the profile and impact of ethnography in corporate settings. As co-founder of ReD Associates, Madsbjerg makes a consistent and compelling case for ethnographers to set their sights beyond user experience and design to impact decisions at the pinnacle of global organisations. His new book Sensemaking advances his mission further, advocating humanities-based thinking to a much wider business audience. The central analysis feels more even resonant today than when the book was released last year: the power of big data has created a false idol, lulling us into the belief that the algorithm has the capacity to replace critical thinking. What unfolds is a story which is compelling and bold in critique, but strangely conservative and ambiguous in the solutions it prescribes. Silicon Valley and the Renaissance Man [sic] Sensemaking...

<Place Label Here> Our Use of Labels at Work

DANIELA CUARON Empathy NIK JARVIE-WALDROM Empathy PechaKucha Presentation—A label can be accurate and inadequate at the same time. A fish is a fish, but it's also a sea-dwelling, scale-covered, egg-laying, underwater-breathing creature. Many of us believe in the power of words to change the way we think about something. But are we always aware of how the labels we use influence our perspective? We're on a mission to better understand how, when, and why people use labels at work. We come across labels in project briefs, some emerge during fieldwork, and then there are labels we use to define what we do. We use them to communicate and refocus, but they also restrict our thinking. Through participation, observation and conversation, we've reflected on how labels can help us and hold us back. Daniela Cuaron is Empathy's research and strategy lead. She applies anthropological research with purpose to create meaningful strategies. Dani's work sees her striving to understand and address people's unmet needs. dani@empathydesign.com Nik...

The Ethnographer’s Spyglass: Insights and Distortions from Remote Usability Testing

CHRISTOPHER A. GOLIAS American Eagle Outfitters This paper examines the cultural counter-flow between ethnography and remote usability testing, specifically what such tools might offer ethnographic practice. I explore how remote usability testing can both extend and delimit ethnographers’ sight lines. Because remote testing has a narrow aperture, long sight line, poor context and quick turnaround, I invoke the metaphor of a spyglass in the hands of the ethnographer to understand this increasingly available digital research method. Remote usability testing can quickly access insights and novel footings, while simultaneously creating myopic, distorted or biased understandings. Theoretically, the history of usability studies is compared to that of archaeology as it transitioned from a cultural product focus to a context focus. Practically, several workflows are presented that use the strengths of ethnography and remote usability testing to enhance one another. Finally, ethnography is discussed as a craft-like competence, rather...

The Virtues of the Visceral

Soldiers check papers and take valuables at the checkpoint at A Day in the Life of a Refugee.
by SIMON ROBERTS, Stripe Partners The news on BBC Radio this morning: The Syrian crisis enters its seventh year with 400,000 dead and little hope that this complex catastrophe will be untangled any time soon. The scale of suffering is huge, but Syria accounts for just a fraction of an even more staggering number – the UNHCR estimates there are 65 million refugees or internally displaced people worldwide. Like many others I watch the steady stream of grisly news from Syria – it comes to us in facts, figures, infographics, human stories and historical comparisons. I've been shocked. But I am also inoculated. Whatever the quality of the reporting, however harrowing the scenes, our attention moves on. It is difficult to truly grasp the scale of what we have seen, hard to understand what it must be like to be a refugee. In an age when a seemingly limitless amount of information is at our fingertips, when we can know more than ever about events around the world, we still fail to understand. Here’s the challenge of contemporary...

A Thrice-Told Truth

EVAN HANOVER Conifer Research MARTA CUCIUREAN-ZAPAN IDEO Download PDF PechaKucha Presentation—“But what do anthropologists do? What kind of special knowledge do you have access to?” This question was posed during one of the salons at EPIC2014 and cuts to the heart of the value of non-academic anthropologists. We contend that there is not one answer, but a series of possibilities, each a pathway – to knowledge with its own consequences and import. To explore these, we take inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon and Margery Wolf’s methodological critique A Thrice-Told Tale. Both of these explore the benefits and limits of perspective by recounting a single story through different lenses. Similarly, we will take a single empirical field observation from fieldwork done on a Caribbean cruise ship. From this starting point, we will frame the same story through three different lenses commonly used in our work: as a user insight, a strategic implication, and as inspiration for innovation. We will emphasize the...

Tutorial: Anthropological Theory in Business Ethnography

Tutorial Instructors: KATHI KITNER Intel Corporation JAMIE SHERMAN Intel Corporation TUTORIAL SUMMARY Anthropological theory deepens and extends the impact of ethnography, adding significant value to the companies, organizations and communities we work with. Because professionals who use and execute ethnography in business come to the job from varying backgrounds, many ethnographers are seeking to extend their training in theory and research. And when we do engage more deeply with theory, many of us find that the epistemologies that drive research in business contexts are often in tension with anthropological understandings of research, knowledge, data, and evidence. As anthropologists working in a corporate setting, we sometimes struggle to reconcile these tensions and maintain an anthropological perspective in the rush of everyday productivity and work objectives. In this tutorial, participants collectively explored what we saw as foundational theoretical perspectives that, historically, have shaped ethnographic method. observation...

The Domestication of Data: Why Embracing Digital Data Means Embracing Bigger Questions

DAWN NAFUS Intel Corporation The EPIC community has been wrestling with ways to integrate quantitative and qualitative methods in light of the increasing role that digital data plays in business practices. Some focus on methodological issues (digital data as method), while others point to the consumer value in data products (data as thing in the world). This paper argues that “digital data as method” and “digital data as thing in the world” are becoming increasingly intertwined. We are not merely witnessing ethnographers’ haulting embrace of digital data, but a wider process of the domestication of data, in which we, alongside the people we study, are participants. The domestication of data involves everyday situations in which ordinary people develop their own sense-making methods—methods remarkably similar to ethnographic knowledge production. In this way, the domestication process tightens the connection between data as thing in the world and data as method. I argue that seeing the interconnection gives us the...

Going with the Gut: The Case for Combining Instinct and Data

by SIMON ROBERTS, Stripe Partners "The lesson I took away from that was, while we like to speak with data around here, so many times in my career I've ended up making decisions with my gut, and I should have followed my gut," Otellini said. "My gut told me to say yes." So said the ex-CEO of Intel, ruing his decision to pass on the opportunity to put Intel processors in the first iPhone. It was a decision that would cost Intel the opportunity to power the wildly successful iOS range. His gut, it turns out, was right—but the data didn’t support his instinct. The story most businesses tell to themselves is that they make decisions based on the best available information. It isn’t an exaggeration to suggest that the entire infrastructure of business strategy is configured around the idea, and needs, of the “rational decision maker.” In the technocratic world the quantitative emphasis on what can be counted (empirical data) obscures what does not count (and cannot be counted), namely subjective emotions, intuition and experience. The...

Moments of Disjuncture: The Value of Corporate Ethnography in the Research Industrial Complex

SHAHEEN AMIREBRAHIMI University of California Davis This paper seeks to examine some of the underlying tensions that shape how and why ethnographers in industry often find their efforts devalued or not realized by stakeholders – i.e. “moments of disjuncture.” I argue that in many large corporations there is a separation between the stories anthropologists tell about themselves and those which are told about them, which mutually constitute an “informed fiction.” This fiction acts as a catalyst within a broader cycle of knowledge exchange (the industrial research complex) that demands a fast paced churning out of “newness” in insights before they grow old. These two processes often come to a head, creating a “seen it before” phenomena which risks devaluing timely and important work. To understand this I examine a case study of smart and automated technologies and offer potential solutions....

Radical Insights: Towards a Critical Hermeneutic

KARL MENDONCA University of California Santa Cruz In this paper, I will use an ethnographic research project to develop a set of foundational personas to work through the process of formulating insights that challenged the core epistemological assumptions of our stakeholders. Drawing on a rich body of discourse within postcolonial theory, I will highlight the concept of critical hermeneutics that emphasizes thinking about the conditions under which knowledge is produced over the “facticity” of the research artifacts, shifting the focus from “how objective is the information” to “what assumptions are driving research.” Put simply, critical hermeneutics can be seen as a method that uses reflexivity to explain how meaning is not absolute or empirical, but rather emerges from active interpretation that is informed by context. With this theoretical framework in mind, I will describe the methods used to include our stakeholders in the process of engaging with research data and ultimately derive the epistemological cores of the...

Knowing That and Knowing How: Towards Embodied Strategy

SIMON ROBERTS Stripe Partners TOM HOY Stripe Partners This paper explores two different forms of knowledge. We compare embodied understanding with propositional or abstract knowledge. Ethnographic research, with its commitment to understanding through immersion and engagement in social fields produces dexterous, intuitive and practical cultural knowledge, which is highly suited towards culturally attuned activity. We argue that ethnography can often be reduced to propositional knowledge as a result of the lack of team participation in research and how we communicate insight. Ideas of professional expertise sit behind the division of labour that characterises client-researcher relationships. Accompanying that division of labour is a need for the communication of ethnographic research to bridge the gap between client and external worlds – the world we as researchers explore and that our clients needs to act in. By engaging our clients in shared, immersive experiences we can create the conditions for them to develop ‘know how’ about...

Creating Ethnography

by NEAL H. PATEL, Google What is an anthropologist? What does an ethnographer actually do? I used to believe that my own answers to these questions were sufficient. In reality, however, the existential dilemma at the foundation of any institution—academic, professional, or otherwise—is a socially constructed affair. In other words, whether I want to admit it or not, my answers are partially your answers—for that matter, all of our collective answers. Indeed, the very existence of a mutually shared set of practical assumptions about ethnography is what makes these questions so important. Meanings are contested, negotiated, and (if you believe Berger and Luckmann1) thereby constitutive of the agreed-upon fiction we call “reality.” Most of us might agree that we are, more or less, the biographers of that fiction. We are interested in how it comes into being, what sustains it, what motivates it, and how it responds to challenges. We pluck assumptions from reality and sell them to clients. Together, this activity constitutes...

Clear Theory for Clear People: Three Ideas for Advancing Theory in the EPIC Community Written in a “Non-theoretical” Way

by PEDRO OLIVEIRA, Independent Research Consultant As a young social scientist I used to be incredibly attracted to dense theoretical texts in anthropology, psychology and the social sciences in general. I equated thickness of language to complexity of thought. I no longer do. When I truly disowned the belief that obscure language hides complex thinking, I had two choices—either let go of theory altogether or develop a different appetite for it. I developed an appetite for clear theory and clear language. Theory in business research, even when informed by the social sciences, demands clarity. At this point in our development as a business research community informed by social sciences, new theory is essential. If we are to overcome the still-dominant view in academia that our work is merely a practical “derivate” of more erudite scholarship in universities, we should invest in our own theory. Many of us are doing this work: it is showcased every year at EPIC and collected online in EPIC’s Intelligences [www.epicpeople.org],...

Reflections on Positionality: Pros, Cons and Workarounds from an Intense Fieldwork

EDUARDO GONÇALVES and MARCELO FAGUNDES During a project an ethnography team immersed itself in the lifestyle of lower socio-economic class women. From the different worldviews between these groups, we discuss positionality and access to data, i.e. the ways characteristics such as socio-economic, education, social status, and gender influence the research. The idea is not to set ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, but to ponder on how successful (or not) were our attempts and reflect on unforeseen effects of our own work....

Big Data or ‘Big Ethnographic Data’? Positioning Big Data within the Ethnographic Space

JOHN CURRAN This paper offers a cultural analysis of the different narratives that currently frame the concept of Big Data. With specific attention to how the ethnographic community has approached Big Data, I will make the point that the ethnographic community needs to rethink what its offer is within the business world. Instead of trying to position ethnography as a discipline that provides deep insights to human behaviour (which we often call ‘the why’), while Big Data offers broad accounts based on large data collection, I make the case that both approaches should be seen as being positioned within an ethnographic space. This is because both ethnography and Big Data are interested in human behaviour and the cultural field and both are interested in generating insights. We should therefore situate Big Data and ethnography as a relationship that exists in a new epistemological field, a field that is both interpretative and data driven. This field I call 'Big Ethnographic Data'....